FORT LAUDERDALE — Jamie Katz and her dad were constantly evicted from apartments. The dog barks from inside their homes were ear-splitting. The stench from litter boxes on balconies, overwhelming.
"He couldn't say no to me,'' said Katz. "And I couldn't say no to the animals."
That was about two decades ago and Katz, 36, still can't say no to the animals — especially missing ones. In the past few weeks alone, Katz, who operates out of a cage-cluttered Fort Lauderdale apartment, has helped track down a French bulldog that escaped a yard and a chihuahua stolen from an animal clinic in South Miami-Dade.
Another French bulldog named Brunno went missing for 180 days — that's 3 1/2 dog years — before Katz reunited him with owners earlier this year, a body-wagging reunion in Fort Lauderdale caught on video. And last year, she helped basketball legend Michael Jordan's daughter find her missing Pomeranian.
Katz is a bona fide pet detective. She is a registered private eye with a degree in criminology, has trained her own dogs to catch the scent of missing pets and — arguably key to her success — has mad skills for using new and old media to spotlight her mission .
"Jamie is sharp. Jamie is amazing," said Emmanuel Laboy, who got his French bulldog Bella back after two agonizing weeks. "And most important, Bella is super happy."
Katz's ability to reunite cats, dogs, parrots and even ferrets with their owners, coupled with a recent surge of positive press, has made her South Florida's most well-known pet detective. Savvy at gaining attention, Katz isn't shy about highlighting her name — a serendipitous homonym — to publicize her growing business.
Since creating her company less than two years ago, Katz said she's taken on 240 cases and solved 150 of them. Most of the time, she reunites animals that have escaped homes. Stolen pets only account for about 10 percent of her business, she said.
Last year, Katz received an anonymous call and was soon helping Jasmine Jordan — the daughter of the Chicago Bulls Hall of Famer — find Mila, her missing Pomeranian Yorkie. Then, an African grey parrot named Oscar Gray was reunited with its owner after a tough negotiation.
Earlier this month Benny, a four-year-old chihuahua owned by South Miami-Dade veterinarian Juan Fernandez Bravo, was retrieved. Two women and a man had snatched Benny inside the animal clinic as Bravo and others tended to 10 rescued animals. Shortly after, Katz got a local television station to air the story, Bravo received a call saying his dog was safe. The dog was returned and Bravo paid a $1,500 reward.
Maria Bravo, the clinic office manager and wife of the veterinarian, said Benny was missing for eight days. She believes the signs made by Katz and her media savvy led to his return.
But Bravo was not entirely convinced the person who had her chihuahua and gladly accepted the $1,500 reward, had nothing to do with the dog's abduction. Bravo, who said she gladly handed over the reward, said the man who somehow wound up with Benny was too frightened to return him to the animal clinic.
"He parked far away behind a mall," she said. "Me and my husband met him and gave him a check."
The case of Brunno the French bulldog, who escaped from his Fort Lauderdale home, dragged on for six months, more than enough time for many missing animal trails to grow cold. But tips after a blast of internet outreach, using community-focused social media sites like Nextdoor.com, led Katz to a home. From there, she surveilled the scene and eventually retrieved Brunno after an exchange of $5,000.
"I can find anybody," said Katz. "I love the research part of it - and I don't give up."
Born in a small town named Sharon about 45 minutes outside of Boston, Katz finished high school in Baltimore. Her tracking interests started when her childhood pet cat Blackjack escaped.
Katz rode her bike all over town in search of that cat. Years later, she caught a television show called Animal Cops on the Animal Planet channel. From then on, lost pets and how to find them became an imperative.
"I never found Blackjack," said Katz. "My goal in life was then to put animals and investigations together."
After grade school, Katz and her dad moved to Baltimore, where she eventually earned a criminal justice degree from a community college. she said she spent the next decade working for pet rescue groups up and down the East Coast. During that time, Katz said began to focus on becoming a professional pet detective.
Getting a private investigators license in 2014 taught Katz how to do important background checks. For the next 18 months she worked as an independent contractor searching for animals. Some of that work left a bitter taste. Katz wouldn't go into detail, saying she was involved in a legal dispute with the company she worked for.
By September 2015, Katz was finally working on her own. She created P.I. Jamie Katz LLC. Last year, her work got some coverage on public radio. But in the last month, things have really taken off. A Washington Post story two weeks ago about her company spawned a slew of calls. A Broward New Times story two days later that told of how she solved a fake kidnapping in which a dog was actually eaten by an alligator, raised her profile even higher.
During an hour-long interview recently, Katz's cellphone filled with 10 new emails.
For many owners of missing pets, paying rewards or for help isn't a problem. The cost of hiring Katz to find a pet: Between $305 and $605, depending on exactly what needs to be done.
For the minimum, a customer gets bright yellow signs with a picture of the lost or stolen pet that includes a phone number and the amount of any reward. The signs are set up strategically through the neighborhood. Katz will spend two weeks following up on any tips.
Some of her signs, though, have caused problems. Some of Katz's clients, particularly in Miami-Dade, have been fined in excess of $1,000 by code enforcement. Zoning regulators say the signs are not permitted in public areas. They must be placed, with permission, on private property.
For $605, Katz will put her 3 1/2-year-old Britain Spaniel Gable and her 3-year-old terrier mix Fletcher, to work. Not long ago a search by Fletcher for a missing ferret stopped cold, telling Katz that the animal had been spirited away in a vehicle. It was eventually found in Atlanta.
Katz works out of her home, a small apartment just west of downtown Fort Lauderdale that is filled with dog cages and pictures of dogs and cats. The inside of the front door is appropriately marked and scratched up. Her Facebook page is filled with reunion videos.
Call her cellphone and if she doesn't answer, the recording is right out of the Jim Carrey comedy Pet Detective: "This is PI Jamie Katz. I'm on another line or on a case."
On Thursday afternoon, Katz was helping a Broward family in Southwest Ranches search for Cedar, a young German shepherd who lives among horses at the family farm. Gable and Fletcher stayed home, for now. So Katz sent out an online blast, inundating Nextdoor.com sites and informing her nearly 3,000 Facebook followers.
Last week, she brought finality to a convoluted search for Bella, Laboy's French bulldog, which had escaped his Fort Lauderdale home through an open gate on April 26. Laboy said not long after he posted a notice on his local Nextdoor site about Bella, a woman contacted him saying she saw the dog for sale on Craigslist.
After a series of back and forth phone calls, Laboy and Katz showed up at Bella's new home and bought her back for $360 — the same price paid to acquire the dog off Craigslist. Katz's fee for her service: A well-spent $405, Laboy said.
"Jamie guided me through the entire process," he said. "It was all about, let's get the dog back. It was well spent money and I don't regret it one bit."